When ArchDaily published “Live on the Edge with OPA’s Casa Brutale” in July of last year, we expected it to be popular on our site, but few anticipated exactly how much attention the project would receive—enough to secure a position in the top 10 most read articles on the site in 2015. But what happened next was perhaps more astounding. By the end of the week, the project had been picked up by the gamut of non-architecture news outlets ranging from Slate to Yahoo to CNET to CNBC. For a few short days, it became difficult to traverse the wild expanses of the internet without a sighting of the project’s lead image, typically accompanied by a hyperbolic headline along the lines of “This Beautiful, Terrifying House is Literally Inside a Cliff.”
But despite the enormous traction, with seemingly impossible features like a clifftop, glass-bottomed swimming pool, the project still seemed to be destined for "paper architecture" status. Yet fast forward to today and the house has (incredibly) found a willing client, and is about to break ground on construction. How did this happen, and what takes architecture from viral sensation to real-life construction project?
Casa Brutale was conceptualized as an inverted Casa Malaparte, a tribute to Brutalism carved from the edge of a cliff; in the words of its designers, “an unclad statement on the simplicity and harmony of contemporary architecture.” According to OPA founding partner Laertis-Antonios Ando Vassiliou, the goal of Casa Brutale from its inception was to become a viral phenomenon:
“The whole project was designed for almost 4 months (March to July 2015) in order to "break the internet". We wanted to create a sensation in every possible way and through this project to actually showcase our platform as this project describes fully our aesthetics and design philosophy.”
The term “break the internet” was famously made popular as the caption to a Paper Magazine cover featuring a voluptuously photoshopped Kim Kardashian which, not unlike Casa Brutale’s moneyshot image, features seemingly impossible structure and a physics-defying water feature. And break the internet it did—within two weeks, Casa Brutale had been featured on an array of news sites, inspiring comments more polarized than those on design blogs, including quotes such as “far more impressive than Falling Water.”
At this point, OPA recognized that taking the project from screen to cliff would require some significant engineering talent, and the firm contacted the Arup headquarters in London to see if they would be willing to consult on the house’s construction. Intrigued by the media attention and the bold scheme, Arup Amsterdam agreed to work with OPA on all the engineering required to put a house literally into a cliff, including Structural, MEP, Building Physics and Geotechnical services.
By August, OPA had even been contacted by an independent film studio that collaborates with a major global documentary channel, who asked to film the construction of Casa Brutale if and when they found a serious client. Since the project’s publication, OPA had received multiple emails “from developers, trust funds, potential clients and some scams that were all interested in realizing the project. We followed-up with all of them,” explains Ando Vassiliou. In the end they didn’t need to wait long—“one email read more serious and ambitious”—and by the end of October, their client had flown to Amsterdam to meet with OPA and decide on the site: the edge of a mountain in Lebanon at an elevation of over 1600 meters.
Truth be told, without the project’s viral reaction, Casa Brutale would likely never have seen the light of day; OPA had originally contacted several developers in Greece and was told that “they only collaborate with famous architects.” It was then that OPA chose to publish online, something Ando Vassiliou recognizes and advocates for other architects to take advantage of:
“Since we've succeeded so far, we would definitely encourage our colleagues to follow the same path: dream big, design big, publish big. We've been through some tough unemployment periods and we know for sure that the job safari is not the most creative task. By chasing the viral idea at least you sharpen your skills and strengthen your portfolio with interesting projects.”
Casa Brutale’s success has led to many new opportunities for OPA. They received invitations to two invited competitions, including a win for their design of the European Commission pavilion at Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, and are currently working on additional projects in Lebanon, Tokyo and South Africa. They’ve also released images for the latest in their cliffside series, Lux Aeterna, a church whose front profile takes the shape of a cross. Time will tell if the building receives a similar treatment to Casa Brutale, or if the market for cliffside structures has, at least for the time being, reached saturation.
What is the takeaway from all of this? Clients and laypersons may hold more power over architecture than ever before. Viral architecture is not about the architect, it’s first and foremost about the clients, who seem to have recognized architecture’s mass potential as a marketing tool. This can manifest as promotional material for an event or institution, like the aforementioned Mobile World Congress 2016, or as a piece of swagger on the belt of the ultra-rich patron.
Everyone wants to be the one to go viral. With apps like Snapchat allowing people to post videos of their homes for anyone to see, the MTV Cribs experience is no longer reserved for pop culture celebrities (even as Cribs itself is being resurrected on Snapchat). It’s increasingly clear that the internet is “where the magic happens.” You can debate whether this is an affront to the artistic integrity of architecture, but for the aspiring firm looking to stand out from the crowd, there’s no better path to success than through the love of the people.
How to Create Viral Architecture
So for architects looking to garner a little self-promotion of their own, where does one begin? Let’s take a look at our case study. What was it exactly that made Casa Brutale into a viral phenomenon? The answer lies in how people use the internet: as viral memes travel from webpages to Pinterest boards to Instagram feeds, a complex project is boiled down into a single image. And with so much other content available, that lead image is often the only chance to grab a viewer’s attention. Looking closer at that image, you find 5 clear reasons why Casa Brutale may have succeed where others have failed:
1. Bold, Simple Concept
In the fast-paced world of internet browsing, there is a whole lot of competing information and little time for nuance. To stand out from the crowd, a project must look radically different and be easily understandable. This phenomenon can be seen in the diagrammatic architecture of firms like BIG, where every project comes with a predetermined icon and nickname. Casa Brutale is clear about its concept (house in a cliffside) and doesn’t distract from it with other imagery.
2. Fantastical, yet unspecific site
Casa Brutale can only be located on a cliffside—but apart from that, where are we in the world? Ask 10 different people where this might be located, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers in return. This allows people to envision the house within their own constructed environment, whether it’s grounded in fantasy or reality. Case in point, the original design proposal mentions a site in Greece, but the final building will be located in Lebanon.
3. Visual and Sensory Contrast
One of Casa Brutale’s key features is its rooftop pool surrounded by nothing but a dry wasteland environment. This trick entices both visually—the pop of blue in a sea of brown—and sensually, quenching the viewers’ sudden thirst. Plus, nearly everyone dreams of someday having their own private pool.
4. Don’t be afraid to court controversy
Whether or not this house can truly be classified as Brutalist, it is without a doubt presented in a cold, calculated style. It comes as little surprise that many authors have noted its resemblance to a Bond lair. And while this certainly adds to the house’s sense of cool, it has also triggered many negative reactions among commenters on news sites—and as anyone who has read a comment board knows, people are more likely to click on an article to leave their dissenting opinion than a positive one.
5. Trust your gut
What’s popular is constantly changing, and the differences between a viral hit and a flop are often subtle. Projects that go viral seem to tap into the public spirit in a unique way, whether it's through use of a new material or a recently-possible engineering feat. To go viral, a project must show that it’s learning from and responding to what’s popular.
It remains to be seen whether or not placing power over what gets built into the hands of non-architecturally-educated internet users is good for architecture, but as architecture evolves to keep up with the trends of the day, architects must use every tool available to them to make themselves seen. Casa Brutale is one example of a conceptual project that found success through its wild intentions. The only question now is: what will go viral next?